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Paco Alvarez: Hsieh didn’t lead a cult, but ‘a cult of personality, maybe’

Updated December 1, 2020 - 8:33 am

A First Friday event nine years ago was a first for a homegrown civic leader, a young entrepreneur and the city itself.

Las Vegas cultural historian and arts figure Brian “Paco” Alvarez met Tony Hsieh in the spring of 2011. Alvarez was curator of the Las Vegas News Bureau at the Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Center at the time. Las Vegas PR rep Melissa Warren was asked to take a dignitary through the First Friday art walk.

Alvarez was not informed who he would lead on this tour until the night of the event.

It was Hsieh, rolling in secretly. He had never been to First Friday.

Alvarez led Hsieh to a tapestry by the artist Sola, which took two years to create and carried a $250,000 price tag. Alvarez had hoped Hsieh would spend some Zappos profits on this Vegas artist’s work.

“He wound up not buying art, but buying First Friday,” said Alvarez, now director of Museum Fiasco at Area15. “He didn’t buy the art. He bought an art event.”

Alvarez would work for Zappos for four years ending in 2017, as the Z’Boutique retail buyer.

“Tony had a core of people around him who became very close to him, because people liked being around his energy because he was so innovative,” Alvarez said. “But there was a level of sycophancy around him. I was wondering, who are his friends? Who are his employees?”

Hsieh inspired an idolatry culture in his company, and inner circle. Publications, including the tech website Gizmodo, openly questioned whether Zappos was a cultural phenomenon or actually a cult, when dozens of guests were tattooed for Hsieh’s 40th birthday party at Inspire Bar Lounge & Nightclub.

Guests had the tiny pixels inked on their hips, wrists, behind their ears. One even had the blue-black mark tattooed on her lower lip. The idea was to present Hsieh with a surprise show of group loyalty.

“I honestly feel that was the Zappos community making a statement. You think we’re a cult? Here, this is what a cult does,” Alvarez said. “They owned it, in other words. I’ll tell you, I’m an anthropologist to the core, and I’ve studied Jim Jones and the Branch Davidians, all of them.

“Tony was not a cult. A cult of personality, maybe. But not a real cult.”

Alvarez observed Hsieh making every minute, every moment, count.

“His brain was a whole different spectrum of genius qualities,” Alvarez says. “He wore the same outfit to work every day, a Zappos shirt we called ‘The Tony T.’ It’s like Mark Zuckerberg with his hoodie, not wasting time deciding on a different outfit. Driving was a waste of time, so he didn’t drive anywhere.”

Alvarez says he owes his own entrepreneurial evolution to Hsieh. But he is unclear as to why the Zappos founder moved out of Las Vegas in favor of Park City, Utah.

“No outsider moves into Park City to bring arts and culture, because it is already there. It’s where Sundance is held, for crying out loud,” Alvarez says. “You don’t try to do what you are doing in Las Vegas in Park City. If you do, you will be eaten alive. Why did he move to Park City? I have no idea.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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